How Brigitte Bardot Created St Tropez

St Tropez was the playground of artists until Brigitte Bardot, the legendary beauty, put it on the map by showing up to film 'And God Created Women'.
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St Tropez was the playground of artists until Brigitte Bardot, the legendary beauty, put it on the map by showing up to film 'And God Created Women'.

And God created woman...

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Long before glamour was invented, AD 68 in fact, the Gallo-Grecian city of Heraclea was bothered only by the wet lapping tongue of the waves and the dry kneading heat of the sun. Legend has it that one day, steered by the tides of a monstrous storm, a drifting boat washed ashore. On it were a cockerel, a dog and the body of a decapitated man. The cockerel, startled by the gathered crowd, flew panicked into a nearby field of flax – lin, in French, and the flaxen coq lent it’s name to the port of Cogolin. The dog was chased though the streets. “G’chien!” they shouted after it, and the village of Gassin was named too.

Another village, hidden close by in the fond arms of the sun-kissed hills, took the name of the mysterious decapitated man. They say he was St Torpes, one of Emperor Nero’s Centurions who became a martyr when he refused to renounce his faith and was beheaded and cast out to see with the animals, who it was intended would feast on his remains. St Torpes prospered on the back of this story, but it became St Tropez long before its next most famous, no less intriguing visitor arrived to change its fortunes once more. Her name was Brigitte Bardot. Her beauty was legend.

Blessed as it was with sunshine and scenery, the key ingredients of both success and excess, St Tropez was already popular with artists and writers by the time Bardot chose it as her home. Many spent their summers there, travelling from Paris because the light was perfect for painting the magnificent backdrops that lined it, but it was still a quaint fishing village, and for all that it inspired these creative souls to capture its magic in pictures and words, only someone as beautiful, as majestic, as truly sensational as the young Bardot could ever embody it.

And that is what Brigitte Bardot has in common with a headless Centurion. A myth. A legend. The muse not of a man, but of an entire town, nay planet, full of them.

She arrived, all succulent pout and legs long like golden rope, with her then husband, the director Roger Vadim, to film ‘And God Created Woman’ in 1956. Bardot walked on to that hot crisp sand by the waterfront in the old town, the Port des Pecheurs, a relative unknown. She emerged from its warm mirrored sea an icon of female sexuality, a totem to erotica. The celebrated had graced St Tropez before, yes. Orson Welles, Rita Hayworth, Errol Flynn and Greta Garbo all took cocktails at the starry club Aioli. But none had the raw power and impact of the young Bardot. In 1956, this sleepy enclave was woken with an almighty bang.

Bardot had fallen in love with what she called “it’s genuine charms… the mulberry trees, the sheep grazing in the scrubland; the mighty farmhouses smothered with bougainvillaea which belonged to the wine producers, their vaulted cellars filled with barrels of maturing Provençal wine. Here, local people raised their poultry and kneaded their loaves, while fisherfolk in their tartans - small flat-bottomed skiffs with wide square russet-hued sails - returned with their nets full of the sea's bounty”.

However, the price of her discovery soon became apparent. Like the siren she looked as she emerged from that water, her lure was powerful and immediate. Not for ships or sailors, but photographers and playboys, film stars, producers and those that sought fame and counsel with the famous.

Thrust onto the international stage, St Tropez began attracting the glitterati from nearby Monaco, the traditional party town in the region. Bardot’s championing of the place sparked a free-for-all. Princes parked their super-yachts in the harbour where the Centurion’s uneaten torso once washed up. Palaces were built in the hills. The sky buzzed with helicopters like hornets dividing up the air. It was the eye of a hurricane blown in all the way from Hollywood. Mick Jagger, then the biggest rock star in the world, proposed to Bianca in Le Byblos, the legendary hotel Bardot herself had ‘christened’ in 1967. Bardot later called the place “jet set base camp”. What she brought to the place was that very essence of the sixties. She was carefree, vibrant and with a naïve sexuality, not mired in the stuffy customs the elite were used to in the likes of Monte Carlo and Cannes. And where the superstars went, others would follow.

Soon the beaches were festooned with sun worshippers. The women, they all dressed like Bardot did. Baby pink and white low-key resort wear flashed provocative samples of flesh. Long lightened hair hung tousled down over breasts, just as she wore hers. The men on the other hand, they just wanted to be with her. None however could get to her for the baying gaggle of paparazzi that by now followed her everywhere, part of the overwhelming attention that infamously pushed her close to the edge. By 1968, when she walked up a St Tropez red carpet on the arm of Sean Connery at the premiere for the western Shalako, she was ready to turn her back on the acting career that had propelled her to stardom. Just five years later she did.

Jean Cocteau perhaps summed Bardot up best when he said "I’ve always preferred mythology to history. History is composed of truths that become lies, mythology of lies that become truths. One characteristic of our age is that it creates instant myths in every field. The press is responsible for inventing people who already exist and endowing them with an imaginary life, superimposed on their own. Brigitte Bardot is a perfect example of this odd concoction. It is likely that fate set her down at the precise point where dream and morality merge. Her beauty and talent are undeniable, but she possesses some other, unknown quality which attracts idolaters in an age deprived of gods”.

And that is what Brigitte Bardot has in common with a headless Centurion. A myth. A legend. The muse not of a man, but of an entire town, nay planet, full of them.